By Kyle Miller
Family engagement is a topic that continues to gain attention in school districts, with a recognition that families are vital to the success of students. However, family engagement typically manifests as mother engagement due to gendered school practices implicitly targeting and supporting mothers (Osborn, 2015; Posey-Maddox, 2017). For that reason, the efforts of fathers often remain unseen or misunderstood by schools and teachers. This was true in my experiences as a teacher and continues to emerge in my research with fathers.
Recently, I interviewed 25 fathers about their current engagement with their children and their parenting goals. Fathers spent anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours discussing the ways in which they support their children’s learning and development. The interviews uncovered countless ways in which fathers support children’s education; however, only four fathers discussed engagement with their children’s schools, and they mentioned having to initiate their relationship with the school or teacher. It became abundantly clear that fathers are actively engaged in children’s education; yet their engagement remains only school-adjacent.
To make family engagement more equitable and inclusive, we must resist adopting the status quo and certain outdated views of fathers. The culture of fatherhood is changing and so must our practices (Trahan & Cheung, 2018). Here are some culturally responsive strategies for schools and teachers to help centralize fathers in family engagement.
- Reject the stereotype that fathers are absent or uninvolved. The perspective that fathers are focused on providing for the family rather than building attachment with children is inaccurate and outdated. The amount of time fathers spend with their children has increased dramatically in the last few decades, and fathers view parenting as central to their identities (Livingston & Parker, 2019). The number of stay-at-home fathers continues to grow, as well as single-father households.
- Remain conscious of communication. Communication with students’ families is typically funneled through mothers or female caregivers. Therefore, mothers serve as the gatekeepers to fathers’ engagement and can open the gate or close it. Make sure to include fathers in emails, phone calls, and any other form of communication. When a child’s mother and father (or caregivers) have a weak relationship with each other, the father often misses out. Keep fathers in the loop. And do be aware of any child-custody concerns when making initial parental contacts.
- Don’t wait – ask! Most fathers will not initiate contact with teachers but are responsive to personal invitations. Further, traditional family engagement activities, such as volunteering in the classroom, are not always appealing to fathers. Ask fathers about their skills, interests, and preferred engagement activities. Work with fathers to reimagine what engagement can look like at your school.
- Design activities and groups (unapologetically) for fathers. Fathers desire to be involved with their children’s education, but don’t always feel comfortable in the school setting or serving as the lone father on parent councils. Co-design activities with fathers that center on their interests and recognize their importance. They’ll be more comfortable knowing other fathers will be present. Also, be sure to maintain a wide definition of “father” to include any male role model.
- Utilize community groups and organizations. Seek out community-based groups and organizations, which typically have stronger relationships with fathers (e.g., afterschool programs, sports and recreation clubs, community centers). Collaborating with community-based groups is how you grow male engagement in schools.
- Make father engagement a goal. As your school develops or reviews its plan for family partnerships, set specific goals for fathers. Schoolwide and documented plans often receive greater attention and resources, making them more sustainable.
As the culture of fatherhood continues to evolve, so should family engagement efforts to support equitable and meaningful relationships with students’ families. Fathers make unique and valuable contributions to children’s education. Recognizing and building upon father engagement is paramount to student success and wellbeing.
Dr. Miller is an Associate Professor at Illinois State University and former urban educator. She teaches courses on elementary education, child development, and learning theories. Her research focuses on family–school partnerships and equity in education.
Osborn, M. (2015). Young fathers: Unseen but not invisible. Families, Relationships and Societies, 4(2), 323–329.
Livingston, G., & Parker, K. (2019). 8 facts about American dads. Pew Research Center.
Trahan, M. H., & Cheung, M. (2018). Fathering involvement to engagement: A phenomenological qualitative roadmap. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 35(4), 367–375.
Posey-Maddox, L. (2017). Schooling in suburbia: the intersections of race, class, gender, and place in black fathers’ engagement and family–school relationships. Gender and Education, 29(5), 577–593.